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Man in Racial Killing Ruled Insane

A white Laguna Hills resident who stabbed his Asian neighbor to death should go to a mental hospital instead of prison, judge says.

September 26, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

A Laguna Hills man who stabbed a 17-year-old Asian neighbor to death in a fit of ethnic hatred will not go to prison but will instead receive treatment for mental illness, a judge ruled Thursday.

Christopher Hearn, 22, who can neither hear nor speak, was legally insane and could not tell right from wrong when he attacked Kenneth Chiu with a kitchen knife June 30, 2001, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino said.

Chiu's father and sister were in court Thursday but indicated through a friend that they declined to comment.

"This is a major blow to them," said Wilson Wang, who accompanied the Chius to Thursday's court proceeding. Hearn "is guilty of committing the crime, and now there is a possibility he might be walking free."

Hearn's attorney and family members could not be reached for comment.

This month, Makino convicted Hearn, who had waived his right to a jury trial, of first-degree murder and the special enhancements of lying in wait and targeting his victim because of ethnicity. Hearn is white; Chiu's parents were born in Taiwan.

But Hearn, who could have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, had also entered a plea of not guilty for reason of insanity. Sanity issues are decided after a defendant is found to have committed a crime.

"I don't want anyone thinking this is absolving anyone," Makino was quoted by City News Service as having told the Santa Ana courtroom. "The question is, was he sane or insane based on the legal standards that we use?"

Makino said he was persuaded by psychiatric experts that Hearn suffered from schizophrenia and believed he had orders from the government to kill dangerous people.

According to court records, Hearn told police through a sign-language interpreter shortly after the stabbing that "Chinese and blacks have weapons."

After the stabbing, "I just left, you know, proud," Hearn said, "that I acted like a Marine, like a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] person.... It's not my fault. I just followed what the government said."

Although Hearn is technically guilty, Thursday's ruling is tantamount to an acquittal because he will receive treatment rather than punishment, said Southwestern University School of Law professor Robert Pugsley, an expert on insanity pleas. But it is unlikely Hearn will be on the streets any time soon, he said.

Those convicted of a crime but found not responsible because they are legally insane can be held in a mental institution until they are deemed no longer a threat, up to the duration of the sentence they would have gotten if found sane. In Hearn's case, that would be the rest of his life.

The state Department of Mental Health will prepare a report on Hearn in 15 days and make a recommendation to Makino.

If Hearn can show he is sane, he could be eligible for supervised release, Pugsley said, but early releases are rare in cases involving violent crimes.

The Hearns and Chius had been neighbors for more than a decade. On the night of the murder, Hearn lured Chiu to his garage and after sharing a cigarette stabbed the teenager 26 times.

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